ESA commits to 7 Ariane 6 missions for 2021-2023, clearing way for ArianeGroup batch order of 14 rockets
The OneWeb satellite-broadband company contracted to launch 30 satellites on the inaugural Ariane 6 flight in mid-2020, with two options included in the contract. Credit: ArianeGroup
KIEV, Ukraine — The European Space Agency (ESA) appears to have broken a deadlock with Europe’s launch industry by agreeing to guarantee that its governments will order seven missions to launch between 2021 and 2023 on the new Ariane 6 rocket.
Not all these missions have been identified yet, which is why ESA had hesitated in making the commitment. But faced with the equivalent of a work stoppage by Ariane 6’s industrial contractors, the agency’s ruling council on April 17 unanimously agreed to make the commitment nonetheless.
ESA Director of Launchers Daniel Neuenschwander said the agency has committed to finding the seven missions — several have already been allocated — by the time of ESA’s ministerial conference, called Space 19+, scheduled for Nov. 28-29 in Seville, Spain.
Ariane 6 prime contractor ArianeGroup said the agreement, reached with unanimous support of ESA governments, appears to be enough to start production of the 14 Ariane 6 vehicles to be launched during that period.
“This is very good news,” said Andre-Hubert Roussel, chief executive of ArianeGroup. Roussel said that once he receives formal written confirmation of the agreement, he will issue ATPs — authorizations to proceed — to the Ariane 6 supply chain to begin work.
Several weeks later, contracts will be signed for 14 Ariane 6 rockets to be built during what ESA has designated as the Ariane 6 transition phase, 2021-2023, when the current Ariane 5 heavy-lift vehicle will be phased out and production of the Ariane 6 will ramp.
ESA and the Ariane 6 contractors agreed that there was an urgency to resolving the outstanding issues given that it will take about two years to produce the first of these 14 rockets.
ESA and the Ariane 6 industrial team had already agreed to the production of a single Ariane 6 rocket, a demonstration flight in mid-2020. None of the other vehicles have been ordered pending an ESA commitment that Ariane 6 industrial suppliers said was indispensable to their making a firm first-batch order of 14 rockets.
Under this schedule, Roussel said, the first of the 14 rockets will be ready for launch in the first half of 2021.
The European Commission and potentially other customers have signaled a need for Ariane 6 in mid-2021, a date that would have been difficult to meet if ESA had put off the seven-launch commitment until the November ministerial.
Neuenschwander said numerous other decisions on Ariane 6 and its future evolution — to reduce its production cost, consider a reusable first stage and a lighter upper stage — will await decisions at the Seville ministerial council.
The inaugural Ariane 6 to fly in mid-2020 will use the rocket’s lighter variant, the Ariane 62 with two strap-on boosters. That mission already has a commercial customer, the startup OneWeb, which is launching a constellation of more than 600 satellites. The heavier Ariane 64, with four boosters, will not fly until 2021.
ArianeGroup has said that the 64 version’s first launch may need to be priced at a discount and that ESA — which needs the 64 version for several of the agency’s missions — may have to provide financial support to the first mission to cover the difference between what the inaugural customer is willing to pay and what ArianeGroup and its Arianespace marketing arm would normally charge for Ariane 64.
Neuenschwander said ESA’s April 17 decision includes an agreement to consider a financial contribution to the Ariane 64’s inaugural flight in 2021 if the agency is unable to come up with the seven agreed-to Ariane 6 missions by the time of the November council.
“To be clear: We’ll consider this only if the seven launch contracts are not signed by the ministerial,” Neuenschwander said. But he said the Ariane 6 launch cadence and the “learning curve” effects are topics that will be addressed at the November conference.
Europe’s Vega small-satellite launcher is now 14 successes in 14 attempts. The upgraded Vega-C is scheduled to fly in the first half of 2020. Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace
ESA’s April 17 council also agreed to a formula for distributing launches between the Ariane 62 and the Vega-C, an upgraded version of the light-lift Vega rocket that has conducted 14 launches, all successful. Vega-C’s prime contractor is Avio SpA of Italy.
With the smallsat market emerging as the most dynamic segment of the satellite business, the capacity overlap between Vega-C and Ariane 62 has become a possible point of contention between the two rockets.
Neuenschwander said ESA payloads below 200 kilograms in launch mass would be assigned to whichever of the two rockets has the first launch availability. Payloads between 200 and 2,350 kilograms would be assigned to Vega-C, and payloads above 2,350 kilograms would be assigned to Ariane 6.